COVID’s Continuing Challenge to Our Streets

This year we have tried our best to keep up with all of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge our transportation system – though with so much news on so many fronts that is often a losing battle. This past summer I moved from Ann Arbor to Washington, D.C. and last week I made a return trip to Michigan for some work that had to be completed on campus. Having crossed the eastern part of the U.S. twice now, I have been relieved to see the vast majority of travelers using mask when in public rest stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – I saw maybe on noncompliant person the entire trip. In reflection on my travels, I want to use today’s blog to present a grab-bag of COVID stories from the past few months that I hadn’t had a chance to feature yet.

How COVID Changed Driving Behavior

All the way back in March, Phil noted in a blog post how COVID-related lockdowns shifted traffic and pollution levels in the U.S. For some people the pandemic has become an excuse to indulge their leadfoot. From January to August the Iowa State Patrol saw a 101% increase in the number of tickets for speeding 100 mph above the speed limit, and a 75% increase in tickets for drivers speeding 25 mph over the limit. Likewise, between March and August the California Highway patrol saw a similar 100% increase in tickets for speeding 100 mph over the limit, with other states reporting extreme speeding ticket increases as well. Some of this could be due to emptier roads inviting speed demons, combined with reductions in the number of officers on the road due to the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, the pandemic lockdowns and travel reductions did benefit one population – wildlife. Over the spring, when lockdowns were at their height and travel at record lows, California reported a 21% reduction in roadkill, while Idaho reported a 38% reduction and Maine a 44% fall. For a while it appeared that human roadway deaths would also fall as travel reduced – from March to May New York City went a record 58 days without a pedestrian fatality. Yet as time has gone on, the number of roadway fatalities has started to climb, or at least have not fallen comparable to reductions in travel. Looking at New York City again, while the number of vehicle miles driven in the city was down 40% between January and June of this year, the number of road fatalities only dropped 10%. Nationwide, while the total number of deaths on the road dropped 5%, the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled actually rose from 1.02 in 2019 to 1.15 in 2020. Indeed July 2020 motor-vehicle fatality estimates saw an 11% increase over 2019.  Could it be that the drivers still on the road are the most dangerous? Could the increased number of speeders be goosing the number of deaths?

Ridesharing Continues to Take a Hit

In August I touched on the major ridership drops facing Uber and Lyft, as part of a blog post discussing the companies’ challenge to a new California law requiring them to treat their drivers as employees, rather than contractors. What I didn’t touch on was how those services and their drivers that are operating in the pandemic reacted to the health crisis. It wasn’t until May that Uber started requiring drivers to wear masks, though now they require both drivers and passengers to take selfies pre-ride to prove all parties are masked up, though in the case of riders the photos are only necessary if the rider was previously flagged for not wearing a mask. Uber has also supplied public health officials with usage data to assist with contract tracing. The company reported that in the first half of 2020 they received 560 data requests globally from public health departments, up from just 10 such requests in the entirety of 2019.

As cities and regions have opened back up, Uber ridership has been reportedly up in cities like New York, while still collapsed in San Francisco and LA. Given that nearly a quarter of the company’s rides from 2019 came from NYC, LA, SF, Chicago, and London, reduced demand on the west coast could be a major issue for them – even if the increased demand for takeout benefits their delivery service, UberEats (though delivery apps have proven to be less than profitable, even during the pandemic…).

Disinfecting Mobility

Another issue that has come to the forefront during the COVID crisis is how to clean vehicles and spaces to reduce the spread of illness. For mass transit half the battle is getting people to social distance and wear masks. In New York more than 170 transit workers have been assaulted while trying to enforce mask requirements, with 95% of those attacks taking place on buses. Meanwhile, companies like AV developer Voyage have adopted new tech to help keep their vehicles clean, which in Voyage’s case meant adopting ultraviolet lighting systems that sterilize their robotaxis in between passengers. In May, Ford rolled out new software for police vehicles they produce that uses the vehicle’s own heating system to bring the internal temperature in the car beyond 133 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, to disinfect high touch areas. In both of these cases the cleaning technology is dangerous to humans, meaning it’s unlikely to be rolled out to the average consumer. New mobility tech like drones have also been repurposed to help fight COVID, with a drone-based system being used to spray disinfectant in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which has been reopened for NFL games (though the number of fans that will actually be allowed in is unknown…).

That’s enough for today, though of course going forward we’ll continue to explore the many ways the ongoing crisis can challenge our transportation system – including upcoming looks at the future of rail and air travel.

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